I don’t usually read two books at one time, but as the departure date of our Charleston vacation quickly approached, I had to make an exception. I haven’t known the remarkable story of the Hunley for long, but I knew it was woven into the fabric of its adopted home town of Charleston and made visiting it a top priority. Like pretty much every other historical site I visit, I like to prepare with a little homework to help me understand what it was I was going to see. I had two books I wanted to read--one focusing on the history of the submarine and the other focusing on the modern search and recovery--and only time to read one.
Between trying to clear my desk of urgent work for my day job, keeping up with Drummer Boy and the general running of the household, I could only dedicate half an hour or so during the evening, some days per week to reading. The only other time I had to dedicate to reading was my commute. But even as a passenger, reading while in a car would not translate to a particularly good time for me or anyone in my general proximity. As a solo driver with over an hour commute each way several days a week, reading while driving is not...encouraged. Thank goodness for Audible, the only safe way to read while driving (unless, I suppose you have hired a professional narrator that travels with you every where you go). I listened to Tom Chaffin's book on my way to and from work and work appointments and read Hicks and Kropf's book while curled up into the corner of my couch after Drummer Boy finally agreed to close his eyes. Reading both at virtually the same time allowed me to compare and contrast the two books much more easily as most of the information remained fresh in my mind while the authors crafted their own explanations and tried to use their sources to back their positions. It was an unwitting debate between the authors, and I got to judge the best position.
The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy was primarily focused on the history of submarine development, putting the Confederate efforts--including the CSS Pioneer and the American Diver--in historical context. Chaffin also used his time to illuminate the back story of the men who would propel the technology forward. Two-thirds of his book focused on the time leading up to the sinking of the Hunley, and only the final third focused on the aftermath. Ultimately, Chaffin only dedicated the final three chapters to the search for, and recovery of, the Hunley.
Raising the Hunley: The Remarkable History and Recovery of the Lost Confederate Submarine by Brian Hicks and Schuyler Kropf is a story mainly of the efforts to find and then recover the Hunley. There is a discussion about the history of the submarine and its predecessors, but only the first third of the book covers this, leaving the authors, local Charleston journalists who were eye witnesses to the recovery and early conservation of the craft, lots of time to tell you exactly what they saw.
So, which book should you read?
In The H.L. Hunley, there are several times Tom Chaffin uses $5 words when nickel words would do. Some of those times actually caused me to roll my eyes, their use was so out of place (dare I say egregious) within the structure of the sentence they were used in, it seemed an obvious effort to show off a superior vocabulary just because he could. While most of his text is highly readable, it is likely that you will learn a few new words to add to into your not-so-everyday conversations. Raising the Hunley is written by journalists and the reading level reflects this. Hicks and Kropf do not dumb things down, but they keep the language easy and the reading flows well. It is descriptive but not challenging.
Winner: Raising the Hunley
Credibility of the Authors
Tom Chaffin uses his introduction to explain his method of historic research. He focuses on using primary documents and when he cannot document, he clearly identifies his own use of speculation. One of the best ways to see his extensive use of historic record is how he debunks the widely accepted myth that Queenie Bennett both gave George Dixon his famous gold coin and that she was his sweetheart. Hicks and Kropf’s eyewitness status to the raising and recovery of the Hunley notwithstanding, their sourcing is generally secondary documents (documents written by people who were not participants or contemporaries of those participants living at the time).
Winner: The H.L. Hunley
Overall Quality of the Work
Chaffin’s book was published in 2008. It is a careful and thoughtful treatment of the history of the Hunley. His sources are credible, and he carefully discloses the rare instances of author speculation. Though there are some sections that are a bit dry and more academic, it isn’t something that plagues the whole of the book. Published in 2002, Hicks' and Kropf’s book reads like they rushed to write and publish it to take advantage of a transient public interest that would soon fade. Besides their unquestioning adherence to the Queenie Bennett myth, they also retell the story of the blue light from the lantern that was the prearranged sign to alert the crew’s home base on Sullivan Island that they had been successful, going so far as to cite the archaeologists’ find of the submarine’s lantern still inside the submarine as proof. They leave out, however, that the lantern’s lenses were clear and that there is no indication that they were ever tinted blue. Had they waited for more of the excavation of submarine, and allowed the findings to drive their narrative, rather than the other way around, the book would have improved greatly.
Winner: The H.L. Hunley
These are not the only books available on the Hunley, and I picked up several others while I was at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, including a newer work by Brian Hicks published in 2014 which may correct some of the errors of his prior work. But until my schedule and reading list allow, people who wish to learn more about the sad tale of the remarkable men and their submarine won’t go wrong picking up or listening to Tom Chaffin’s The H.L. Hunley: The Secret Hope of the Confederacy.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.